Along with just about every music journalist in the world at one point or another, my fellow A.V. Club writer Andrew Earles and I were recently taken to task for comparing bands to other bands in reviews. This week, Andrew wrote up the new Bear In Heaven CD, and I tackled the new Clipd Beaks; between the two of us, we manage to drop references to Genesis, Pink Floyd, Mercury Rev, Animal Collective, Comets On Fire, and Get Hustle in the collective span of approximately 250 words. Oddly enough, both of us cite progressive post-punk group This Heat in our reviews–which, according to the comments, actually delighted at least one reader (the same reader, incidentally, who said that comparison-laden reviews like mine make him/her "wanna puke"). Andrew's detractor, however, was a bit more vicious: After calling the Bear In Heaven review "insufferable" and "a mini-landslide of namedropping," he/she says, "It would just be nice to see [the reviewer] approach a record on its OWN terms, rather than compulsively compare it to everything they think it maybe kinda sounds like."
While I can't (and shouldn't and won't) speak for Andrew, I can definitely say this: I don't see the slightest thing wrong with namedropping other bands in reviews. It's been done forever, it will continue to be done forever, and it's actually a pretty effective method of critical shorthand. Like money, nuclear energy, and the ability to climb walls and shoot webs out of one's wrists, referencing other bands in reviews can be used for good or evil, competently or horribly. But there's nothing inherently amiss with the practice; honestly, I couldn't count all the times I've appreciated a good, solid session of "spot the influence" in a record review. Granted, certain writers tend to lapse into the whole "Band X sounds like Band Y on Drug Z" formula or some elaborate variation thereof, but even that seems to have either died out or taken a turn for the creative. I'll concede that some writers–myself included–occasionally go just a bit too far with the comparisons. After all, it's fun. Dissecting a band and pinning its influences to the cutting board is one of the basic and enduring joys of music geekhood. But I appreciate the method even as a reader: When I come across record reviews, especially longer ones, I often find myself skimming through the text looking for other band names before going back to the beginning and reading it in its entirety. If such a cursory search dredges up, say, "Grace Slick dry-humping Korn on Heavy D's waterbed," sometimes I don't even bother reading the whole review. (In fact, I'd drop that particular review and immediately rush out and buy the album.)
Of course, this whole issue is hardly a crucial one–I couldn't see myself defending the practice of critical name-checking any more passionately than I'd defend the use of a keyboard or a ballpoint pen. A tool's a tool's a tool. But one thing brought up by our complaining commenter (love ya, guy!) deserves a stronger rebuttal: the vague assertion that reviewers are obligated to "approach a record on its own terms." As soon as musicians start being born, growing to adulthood, and making records in a vacuum, I'll be more than happy to review records on their "own terms." But until that new age dawns, I'll continue to put them into context–aesthetically, socially, emotionally, whatever criterion seems halfway appropriate or thought-provoking. Or whatever. But what do you all think? Am I totally off the mark? Should band references in reviews be universally curbed or even verboten? Is there a desirable middle ground? Huh? Huh?